KIDS’ BOOKS ARE often short, designed to entertain, illustrated to hold young attention — and they are often the literature that has the greatest impact on our lives. Matador editors Matt Hershberger, Ana Bulnes, and Morgane Croissant have gone digging through their old book collections to find their favorite children’s books — those that have remained relevant and readable in their adult lives.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
The stories we hear as children matter. We internalize their lessons and we carry them through the rest of our lives. Philip Pullman is an agnostic and a humanist, and was frustrated with the Christian themes in some of our best-known fantasy literature, like The Chronicles of Narnia. He was particularly annoyed at the concept of original sin — why tell children they are born evil? Why demonize sexuality? Why throw women to the wolves?
His response to these questions is the fantastic trilogy, His Dark Materials trilogy. The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass depict parallel worlds in which the church is not the good guy, and in which humans have marvelous eternal animal companions known as “daemons.”
It’s a refreshing alternative to centuries of Christian fiction, and it’s worth reading for anyone who has ever questioned religious authority. –Matt Hershberger
George by Alex Gino
George was biologically born a boy, but she knows that she is a girl inside — Melissa. She would love to be able to explain how she feels to her brother, her mom, and her best friend at her elementary school, but is terrified of being deemed a “freak” and being rejected.
If you’ve been following the news recently, you know that transgender people are constantly under attack. If you dig a bit deeper in this issue, you’ll know that one of the results of these attacks is a suicide attempt rate among transgender persons that ranges from 32% to 50% across the countries.
This novel for young adults should be read by anyone who has trouble understanding what transgender individuals go through. It is simple, yet powerfully effective in showing how coming out as transgender to your family and friends can be paralyzing. It is filled with subtle sadness and great joys. I recommend it to anyone who wants to be a better ally to trans people. –Morgane Croissant
All of Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
Does Harry Potter need any more publicity? Well, I never get tired of recommending the series to adults who despise the books as just an example of what good marketing can do for bad literature. I disagree. Marketing didn’t start until the first book was unexpectedly successful. And this is not just a dumb series about wizards only kids could be interested in.
The ideal Harry Potter experience is growing up with him and his friends, starting the books when you’re 11 and finishing them at 17, but that doesn’t mean there’s an age when you’re too old for them. I know this because I only read the books after my father insisted a lot when the first book came out (and started making weird comments about the world and saying “if you’d read Harry Potter, you’d understand.”) I was 14 and thought myself too old to be reading stories about wizards, but I finally surrendered and said “Ok, dad, just stop the jokes.” And I’m really glad I did. –Ana Bulnes
The Works of Dr. Seuss
There’s a scene in a season 2 episode of the Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty in which a planet of people go to war with each other, choosing sides based on the shape of their nipples. The character Summer, who accidentally instigated this war, shouts, “Why are you fighting? Can’t you see you’re all the same?”
Her brother Morty responds, “Aw, Summer. First race war, huh?”
The first time I heard this idea explicitly — that racism was arbitrary and moronic — was in Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches. The first place I learned about environmentalism? The Lorax. The first I heard of anti-fascism? Yertle the Turtle. The first place I heard criticisms of consumerism? How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Seuss’s politics weren’t always right (he was, inexplicably, in favor of Japanese internment), but his work remains powerfully relevant to this day. And aside from having all the right morals to his story, the art is wonderful, and the nonsense is unparalleled. No matter your age. –Matt Hershberger
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Children will enjoy The Little Prince for its quirky characters and its pretty illustrations, but the morals hidden in this book will escape them when they are really young. That does not mean you should not get this book for your child, it just means you should read it with your child at different stages in their lives, so they understand all the beautiful aspects of it while their perspective of the world is changing.
The Little Prince is the story of a young boy who leaves his small planet to visit the rest of the universe. From planet to planet, he meets adults with behaviors that are incomprehensible to him.
It’s a spiritual book that only takes a couple of hours to read, but from which most everyone can draw lessons for the rest of their lives. Those who deem it “for kids” or “too fantastical” should read it twice. –Morgane Croissant
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
You might have seen the movie and wondered what all the hype was about. Forget the movie, read the book. Published in 1963, it was revolutionary for many reasons, one of them being the lack of a clear moral lesson in the end — Max has a tantrum, visits his wild side, hangs out with the monsters who love him so much that they’ll eat him whole, and comes back home when he starts feeling homesick. What’s waiting for him? Punishment, angry parents? No — a dinner ‘still hot.’
Kids loved it from the beginning, many adults needed some more time to understand. It’s a story about the power of imagination, the right to visit our wild side from time to time, and the reassurance of having a loving family, but there are so many ways to read and understand this book that you’ll never get tired of it. –Ana Bulnes
The Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Gary Paulsen is an American writer, but he wrote a very Canadian novel for young adults that is a classic for many North American kids.
The Hatchet is a coming-of-age story of a teenage boy who must survive alone in the wilderness of Ontario after a plane crash. Thankfully, his mom had just purchased him a hatchet that helps him in this terrible plight.
I read this story when I was 25 and loved it. It will teach you about resilience, survival techniques, and hope — things children and adults alike can never have too much of. –Morgane Croissant
Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl is one of my favorite authors. As a kid, I devoured his children’s books again and again; and then as I got older, I got into his stories for grown-ups. While the content of his books for adults is different (basically, there’s a lot of sex), the spirit is always the same. Roald Dahl was a brilliant and naughty writer, one of those you can imagine giggling while creating his stories.
Selecting just one of his books isn’t easy (I feel Matilda, the witches, and a big friendly giant looking at me right now and wondering why I didn’t choose them), but I’m staying with Fantastic Mr. Fox because I re-read it as an adult when the movie came out and still loved it. Without all the extra father-son relationship content the movie adds, this is just a story about a clever fox and his efforts to outsmart some dumb farmers. But it’s a fun read and sometimes that’s all you need in order to face the rest of the day with a stupid smile on your face. And, as with all Roald Dahl books, you get Quentin Blake’s illustrations. –Ana Bulnes
Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson
As a kid, nothing spoke to me more than Calvin & Hobbes. I read the books obsessively for maybe 5 years until they started drifting to the bottom of my book piles, and eventually ended up in my parent’s basement. Then, a couple of years back, my 6-year-old nephew discovered them in a moldy old box. Calvin & Hobbes is back in my life now, and it’s just as good as I remember.
Bill Watterson only did the comic for 10 years, but the amount he did in that 10 years is incredible. The comic touches on environmentalism, on bullying, on boredom, on loneliness, and on how imagination can defeat all of these things. The art is spectacular in a way few other comics are, the jokes are far more hilarious than anything I remember from Looney Tunes — and the emotion is real.
Like the best children’s literature, Calvin & Hobbes appears to have been written both for kids and adults. I remember learning a lot of new words from the comic when I was a kid (I still use “transmogrification” more frequently than is necessary), and I remember more than a few things going straight over my head. Which is why the reread is all the more wonderful. –Matt Hershberger